It’s Never too Early to Start: Planning Employment Futures with Autistic and Neurodivergent People by Barb Cook, M.Aut., Dip.HSc.

Opinion piece.

The employment world can be a difficult one to navigate for most people, let alone for autistic and neurodivergent people.

The employment journey starts way before getting a job. Society is led to believe that from a young age we need to get a good education, strive for a well-paid job, earn money to buy your first car, earn more money to move out and live on our own or with a partner, save and earn to support a family… the list goes on. This is something that many people aim for, that idyllic, perfect, fulfilling life.

But what happens if you don’t fit the mould and expectations of what society holds?

What if it starts way back in the days of school when children and adolescents are being prepped to become these contributing members of society, but are struggling to navigate the education system due to differences in learning styles, bombarded by sensory stimuli or grappling with the ‘hidden’ curriculum?

When leaving school, society puts high expectations on young adults in what they should be engaging in and aiming for. But again, what happens when these barriers and differences experienced through school, also affect how they perform in the workplace? It can make their aspirations, vision, goals and dreams so much harder to attain.

Educators can question, have autistic and neurodivergent people have been prepared and readied for the expectations of work, have they been taught how to self-advocate and to have a voice that will be heard when they have questions to ask when they are unsure, or in need of support and guidance?  We can also question further, have employers been trained and are ready to embrace the diversity of thought and to be inclusive of people with differences?

So, where to start?

Quite simply, from the very early days of their educational path. Parents and educators may think planning for employment at age five might be a bit too young, but in reality, it never is too young to start putting strategies into place and understanding what the child’s needs, supports, barriers are, along with their strengths, passions and visions. The sooner these strengths and supports are ascertained, the sooner the child can be effectively supported in having every opportunity in working towards a bright future.

Another consideration that is often overlooked is that autistic and neurodivergent people don’t grow out of their condition. It is lifelong. These strategies, tools and supports that are taught to the child will become an integral part of their toolbox for life. Learning how to identify, for example, the sensory issues of sounds can be addressed early, supporting the child in learning what works for them and how to implement strategies in reducing the overwhelm in noisy situations.

Helping the young autistic and neurodivergent adults in finding their voice, confidently speaking up, to self-advocate when they need support or freely expressing their concerns is a significant and empowering skill to have.

Being heard, respected and supported is often the key to a success in many life situations.

Parents also play an enormous role in supporting their child in attaining a future that is driven by the desire and vision of their children. Actively listening and supporting them, working with them in identifying their passions and dreams and creatively looking at how to attain these, is an integral part of the collaborative approach in working towards their future. Adopting the person-centred approach allows the autistic and neurodivergent person an opportunity to be heard, to be respected and to be included in all decisions about their life. Taking a step back and considering how requests for support are conveyed, do make a big difference. Changing “I am advocating for what I want for my child…”, to “I am advocating with my child and supporting them in attaining what my child wants…” is significantly empowering to the child or young adult. They know you have their back and support what they want.

By instilling these skills from a young age, all stakeholders are working together in making change for true inclusion, respect, and values.

As a society, we change our perspective to one of “how can I support you in attaining your visions and goals”, rather than the outdated deficit-model thinking of limited futures and choices, often instigated by stakeholder perceptions. Adopting creative thinking, opening up opportunities through changing perceptions, plus listening and implementing supportive educational and employment environments, makes sense and should be acted upon at every opportunity.

When we as a society work towards making this change, we are creating positive and productive change that allows for a future that is diverse, bright, innovative and genuinely inclusive.

Every person deserves the chance to aspire to their dreams and their visions, and to have the best possible future, and a future that is central to and directed by them.

Join me for Autism Working: a Live Webcast 4 March 2022

When understood and supported, autistic employees have been found to be both more productive and valued than nonautistic employees. Join me for a live webcast on 4 March alongside Professor Tony Attwood and Dr Michelle Garnettt, to increase your understanding of how to support autistic staff in the workplace.

About Barb Cook, M.Aut. (Edu), Dip.HSc. (Nut)

Barb is a registered Developmental Educator, current Deputy Chair of the Developmental Educators Australia Incorporated (DEAI), and an Autism and Neurodiversity Employment Consultant and Life Coach for neurodivergent adults (ADHD, autism and dyslexia). Barb holds a Master of Autism (education) degree with focus on employment from the University of Wollongong, where she is also a researcher and co-project lead in the area of self-determination and self-advocacy for adults on the autism spectrum.

Barb has extensive experience in working with adults on the autism spectrum and ADHD, in creating pathways in attaining life goals in the areas of self-determination and self-advocacy, education, employment, health and interpersonal relationships.

Barb is founder of the Neurodiversity Hub in Gympie Queensland, a space providing allied health services for neurodivergent people, including one-on-one support, therapeutic groups, workshops and presentations and an informal space to meet.

Barb is Director and Founder of NeuroEmploy Pty Ltd, a company providing a variety of neurodiversity specific educational and training programs for neurodivergent individuals, workplace staff, management and businesses.

Barb is founder of Spectrum Women Magazine and editor and co-author of the internationally acclaimed book, Spectrum Women: Walking to the Beat of Autism. Barb is a prolific writer on neurodivergence and employment and is published in academic research.

Barb is a highly sought after international speaker and presents on a variety of topics related to autism, ADHD and Neurodiversity.

Barb identifies as neurodivergent, being formally diagnosed mid-life with ADHD, Autism and dyslexia in 2009, and promotes a strength-based and person-centred approach in her life and work.

Barb is a passionate motorcyclist, and enjoys riding the love of her life, Ron Strom Burgundy, a Suzuki VStrom DL1000, who assists her with good self-care and an effective anxiety reducing and depression busting practice.

For more information on Barb and her work click HERE.

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